Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Find yourself a comfy place to rest your bones and take a brief magical, mystery tour of a small corner of Japanese life on film. Beyond Japan’s world-famous kaiju (giant monster) genre, there is a Japanese cinematic world most Westerners have never experienced…and it is an experience. It’s a world where everyday life merges with 9,000 years of mythology and spirituality. It is life in which supernatural intervention is never unexpected...a straight, flat road that can change terrain and direction at any moment.
Let’s start with I Was Born, But…, a 1932 silent film that will seem familiar to those of us in the West because it is much like an adorable Hal Roach Our Gangcomedy, but it suddenly takes a dramatic turn. The story follows two young brothers as they try to assimilate into a new neighborhood and school. They get into all kinds of shenanigans with their new friends and battle the stereotypical bully. About three-quarters of the way into the film, the slapstick story punches you in the face. The two brothers witness their father, whom they look up to, acting like a clown to please his boss. The boys lose all respect for their father and even attempt a hunger strike in protest. It is a lesson about the class system in Japan at the time.
Mr. Thank You (1936) is an enchanting road picture about a bus driver nicknamed “Mr Thank You”. He always shows his gratitude to others on the road who get out of his way on the narrow, winding path from Izu to Tokyo. There is comedy, romance and an overwhelming sense of impending tragedy during the journey. The passengers are a diverse group representing different aspects of depression-era Japan, as evidenced by these lines spoken by Mr. Thank You:
“I’ve seen eight girls cross this pass headed for paper factories and cotton mills and who knows what else. Sometimes I think I’d be better off driving a hearse.”
-Mr. Thank You (1936)
The name of director, Akira Kurosawa is known worldwide. His 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai is considered by fans and scholars to be one of the greatest films ever made. Its story has been “borrowed”, shall we say, and remade in several different genres from The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Its success often overshadows another Kurosawa masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made, Rashomon (1950). Rashomon put Japanese cinema on the world stage for the first time. It was even given an Honorary Oscar at the 1952 Academy Awards. The story involves several different characters telling different and self-serving accounts of the same death of a samurai. In court, the dead samurai gives testimony through a medium. Neither the judge, the defendant, or the other witnesses are surprised by the ghostly testimony and it is entered into court records.
I don't think anyone can tell a romantic fantasy with so much believability and realism as the Japanese. Ugetsu (1953) is an excellent example of a forbidden love ghost story. A potter leaves his wife and son and gets seduced by a life-sucking, yet beautiful spirit. Like Rashomon, it is credited with bring Japanese cinema to the Western world with resonating themes about the ethics of war, duty to one’s family, and of course…the price to be paid for a dalliance with a hot spirit.
When I read the description of Onibaba (1964) before seeing this historical drama horror film for the first time, I screamed, “Two woman make a living by killing samurai and selling their possessions?! Yes! I’m all in!” Much to my surprised delight, the film turned out to be much more than just that…as if two hardcore chicks whacking soldiers and stealing their stuff wasn’t enough. Romance and war also weave their way through this blood-curdling tapestry and in the end, the creepy demon from the spirit world gets its ugly revenge Twilight Zone style.
If it is historically accurate horror you crave, there is no film bleaker, darker, more depressing and disturbing than Fires on the Plain (1959). Set in the waning years of World War II, the story is told from the point of view of a Japanese private suffering from tuberculosis and trying to stay alive on the island of Leyte in the Philippines while starvation, dysentery, and Allied troops slowly kill his fellow soldiers. Ultimately, he is forced to choose either death or cannibalism. By the end of the film, it has turned into a zombie flick, but never the less, it is a magnificent piece of filmmaking. A must-see masterpiece.
When it comes to films about gangsters or organized crime, the Japanese have put their original touch on that genre as well. Take for example, Pigs and Battleships (1961). The title tells you exactly what you can expect to see, but it’s why and how you see it which makes the story so compelling. There are low-level gangsters who steal pigs, fleets of U.S. Navy ships in the harbor looking to buy cheap pork, and brutish, always drunk and destructive American-stereotype sailors with Swedish accents. Finding Caucasian actors in Japan is more difficult than you may realize.
The film is both funny, depressing and disturbing in its depiction of the lower classes and Japan’s beat generation of the late 1950s and earlier 60s. Its pig stampede climax is unforgettable.
Branded to Kill (1967) on the other hand is slick, sexy, supernatural and just plain cool. The lead character is the James Bond of mob hitmen, except the woman he sexual ravishes or assaults depending on how you look at it, is his wife. Their relationship is to say the least, complicated, bordering on insanity. His modus operandi for killing is imaginative. Throw-in magical butterflies and a cold, almost robotic seductress and the result is a surrealist film and an excellent example of the Japanese New Wave movement.
For my personal tastes, no one can top the imagination of classic Japanese filmmakers. They are a unique product of their time and place. They have given those of us in the West a glimpse into a culture that has survived for millennia. It may seem foreign to us. It may seem mysterious to us. It definitely seems intriguing to many of us, and it is an unexpected journey through storytelling.
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